Yet in our modern consciousness — especially in areas like Lake Norman, where so many of us are from somewhere else — the only context for those names often is the present. Our towns are the places where we live, not salutes to pioneers who created something out of nothing. Students can go all the way through elementary, middle and high school without ever learning about the namesakes of those schools. We live in neighborhoods and on streets for decades without ever knowing how they got their names.
This week, as we celebrate our nation's 236th birthday, the Citizen presents the first in an occasional series of stories about key people and events in the history of this area we now call Lake Norman.
General William Lee Davidson
Only the horse came back.
On Feb. 1, 1781, a riderless horse traveled three miles on its own, from a narrow section of the Catawba River to the farm of Maj. John Davidson, then known as Rural Retreat and now part of Historic Rural Hill, on the western edge of Huntersville.
The horse's mssing rider, American Gen. William Lee Davidson, lay dead and naked on the battlefield of what would become known as the Battle of Cowan's Ford, where British soldiers led by Gen. Charles Corwallis had shot Davidson, then stripped him of his uniform and belongings.
Legend holds that slaves at Rural Retreat could have predicted ill fortune for the general.
"Tales are told that the General mounted his horse under a low bowed tree on leaving and that the slaves predicted dire results from the ill omen," historian Chalmers Davidson wrote in his 1943 book, Major John Davidson of Rural Hill. "The premonition of the negroes, if the tale is true, proved correct, for General Davidson was killed by the first British fire from the Catawba and his horse returned riderless to the stables of Major John."
It was an unceremonious end for a senior officer who'd served in George Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge, then returned to his home state of North Carolina to command militia forces that became a constant nuisance to the British.
It also wasn't Davidson's first encounter with the legendary Corwallis. After the British general captured Charleston in early 1780, he marched toward North Carolina and attacked Charlotte in September. Gen. Davidson rallied several hundred patriots to challenge them at Cowans Ford, slowing the British while American forces retreated to Guilford Courthouse, where the Americans severely weakened the British.
When Gen. Davidson's body was found after the Battle of Cowan's Ford, his friends and wife buried him hastily by torchlight five miles away from the battlefield, at Hopewell Presbyterian Church on Beatties Ford Road, because they feared that British troops might have found and desecrated the body if he'd been buried at his home church in Guilford County.
In 1837, when North Carolina Presbyterians established a college north of Charlotte, they named it Davidson College, in honor of Gen. Davidson. The community that grew nearby also took on the name Davidson College, before dropping "College" from the name in 1891.
The story of Gen. Davidson didn't end with the naming of a college and a town, though. Among the items the British soldiers took from Davidson at Cowan's Ford was a four-inch by 10-inch leather wallet that served as the general's briefcase. The pouch held 28 documents relating details of military campaigns, supplies and prisoners, a transcribed letter from George Washington, and a letter from Gen. Nathaniel Greene requesting public support of Gen. Davidson's militia recruitment.
The wallet and its contents had been held in the Public Records Office in London for more than two centuries until 2001, when the Rev. Jeff Lowrance of Hopewell Presbyterian helped arrange a loan of the items, which first came to Davidson in June of that year before being moved to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro as part of a year-long display chronicling the Revolution's southern campaign.
The wallet has since returned to London. Lowrance died in 2009. And May Davidson, the last direct descendent of Maj. John Davidson — who loaned Gen. Davidson the horse — died last year.
But the Davidson name lives on.